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The curse of compressing reality

Noah wrote this on 10 comments

When I’m not analyzing data, I like to make things from wood—furniture, cutting boards, etc. Making something physical after sitting at a computer all day is relaxing and rewarding, and I’m never short on gifts for family and friends.

My woodworking isn’t totally detached from technology, and I rely heavily on forums, websites, online magazines, and YouTube both for inspiration and to learn how to do things. I’ve learned most of what I know about woodworking from people on the Internet, and I’ve been inspired to tackle things that I never would have thought of otherwise.

There’s a downside to seeing all this creation on the Internet—you aren’t seeing the reality of the process. You see someone make an amazing bowl or cutting board in 6 or 12 minutes. Even on the long side, it’s rare to see something creative boiled down to more than an hour of footage or a couple dozen photographs and a few thousand words.

When you compress things down to a shareable size, you miss a lot. What you don’t see is the unglamorous parts: the sharpening of the chisels, the unclogging of your glue bottle, or the parts that don’t fit together. You don’t see the days where you are too tired or unmotivated to go down and work on anything at all, or those cases where life interferes and a “easy one weekend project” ends up stretching to six or twelve months.

This same phenomenon appears in sharing about web design and software. You see a major new version of a mobile app compressed into a few thousand words or an animation in a dozen GIFs, but you don’t see the day lost to fighting Xcode issues or waiting for things to render. You don’t see the mornings where you end up reverting the previous day’s commits entirely.

Any creative endeavor is highly non-linear, but the sharing of it almost always skips a lot of the actual work that goes into it. That’s ok; a clear progression makes for a good story that’s easy to tell. But don’t judge your reality against someone else’s compressed work. It’s ok if it takes you a day to make a cutting board like one that someone made in six minutes on YouTube; the truth is it probably took them a day too.

Stuck again

Nathan Kontny
Nathan Kontny wrote this on 13 comments

In 1949, Earl Bakken and his brother-in-law Palmer Hermundslie started a medical device repair shop in Palmer's garage. It was a terrible place to work – freezing in the winter, stifling in the summer.

We used a garden hose to spray water on the roof in a not especially successful attempt to cool the place down a few degrees. At least once during those early days, the garage was infested with flying ants.

Unlike your typical "successful" startup garage stories, they were in that garage for the next 12 years. In their first month of operation, they earned a whopping $8 of revenue. Even in 1949 money, that wasn't good. And, for the next several years, they just kept losing money.

In 1957, a chance encounter with Walt Lillehei, a heart surgeon desperately looking for a way to keep his patients alive during blackouts, led Earl to invent the world's first battery operated pacemaker. Earl and Palmer's company, Medtronic, would become one of the leading biomedical companies of our time. They invented the pacemaker industry. And for the next 30 years, dominated the market.

But by 1986, their company had fallen from a 70% market share to 29%. Despite spending many millions on R&D, the company couldn't compete anymore. The company was stuck again.

Could someone save it?

Mars, similar to Earth, rotates around its own axis every 24 hours and 39 minutes. And when a solar-powered rover lands on Mars, most of its activity occurs during Martian daytime. So engineers on Earth studying Mars rover data, adopt the ~25 hour Martian cycle. Laura K. Barger, Ph.D., an instructor at the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, wanted to know what kind of effect that has. Does 39 minutes really make that big of a difference?

What she found from her studies was that NASA engineers who could correctly sync their own wake/sleep schedules with the 25 hour day did fine. But they had to make a concerted effort to adapt using countermeasures – take the right naps, alter their caffeine intake, use light exposure, etc.

But those people who couldn't adapt, or didn't bother to try, suffered significant performance problems from fatigue. She also found that on the first Mars rover mission, The Sojourner, engineers were so exhausted after a month that they formed what NASA managers called a "rebellion" and refused to work on Martian time any longer.

We spend billions of dollars on space exploration and engineering, lives are at stake, and simply getting our circadian rhythm synced correctly with our tasks and with our team could make or break an entire operation.

It underscores the importance of what appears trivial: achieving the right rhythm.

In 1987, Mike Stevens was assigned to be vice president of Medtronic's product development. When he looked at what was happening at Medtronic, he noticed that there were actually quite a few good ideas in the pipeline. But when they were just about ready to launch, a competitor would spring up with a similar product. Medtronic would delay the launch, debate, discuss, and try to figure out a superior version to launch instead. The company was in a cycle that led to a decade of no new products.

Steven's solution was incredibly simple. He put the whole company on something he referred to as a "train schedule". He and his executives set dates far into the future for when new products would be invented and launched.

I chose that phrase "would be invented" carefully. Because these weren't product ideas they already had and now just needed development. They didn't even know yet what they would develop and launch – just that they would launch something, anything, on schedule.

The effect was tremendous. The company could still debate and plan, but employees knew decisions needed to be made by a certain date or else they'd miss the train.

Medtronic's market share climbed back steadily from Steven's promotion date, and in 1996, they were back above 50%.

Years ago, I was sick of not having a bigger audience around my writing and software products. My Twitter account was stuck at 200 followers. And I didn't know yet what to improve, how to differentiate myself, or how to market my products better. So, I committed to writing and publishing at least one blog post every 7 days. That's it.

The first post, crickets. The next post, more of the same. And the next and the next. Very few people read what I was writing. But the rhythm got me through the points where many would have given up. And to the points where I started getting better.

And years later, I had gotten so much better that hundreds and then thousands of people began reading my blog posts at Ninjas and Robots. The new audience helped me launch a product, Draft. But of course, I had a familiar feeling of being stuck with Draft, writing software amongst a sea of other writing software.

I had no idea how I was going to compete, what I was going to build, how I was going to market the thing. But I did the same thing I did with writing, I committed to a cycle of launching as many new features and improvements as I could every few weeks. That's it. But the momentum fortunately caused a lot of excitement.

Some folks even compared it to Christmas :)

No matter what my revenue looked like, or how terrible my user growth might be, I knew I had to release something. The rhythm trumped everything and kept propelling me forward.

Back in February of 2014, 37signals announced they were renaming themselves Basecamp to focus on their project management software. They would look at selling off their other products, especially their second most popular product, Highrise, a small business CRM tool.

You can imagine what that kind of announcement did to customer growth of Highrise. Even worse, as soon as the announcement was made, more than a few competitors took the approach of putting up mini-sites that read: "Goodbye Highrise. Highrise is shuttering; here's how you migrate your data to us." Highrise wasn't going away, but that didn't stop them.

So when Basecamp decided to spin-off Highrise as a subsidiary, I faced quite a bit of negative momentum as Highrise's CEO. But this looks like a challenge previous versions of me has faced before on a smaller scale.

On day one, I established a train schedule – we'd make major announcements on a regular basis. If something isn't ready, it misses the train. But an announcement is going out; something better be on it.

I didn't start with a big team. It was just me and one more developer, Zack Gilbert, but we were going to ship whatever we could ship in one month, and make a big deal out of it.

It wasn't an announcement filled with very big ideas or changes. We only had 30 days to begin learning a large code base, and had plenty of other tasks and support requests to handle. But we had a schedule to keep.

And our first announcement went out. Then another one month after that. And then another. Now with a bigger team, and even more experience with the product and advice from our users, the announcements are getting more interesting.

The result? Highrise HQ LLC has only technically been in business a little over 3 months. But our rate of customer growth has increased by 39%! And we're seeing growth numbers that look a lot more like what the numbers were before Basecamp made their announcement.

It's far too soon to proclaim Mission Accomplished, we have many mountains to climb still and plenty of low points along the way I'm sure, but it's apparent what kind of effect a rhythm can have on creating a product, syncing a team, and communicating with customers. And things are starting to look a bit familiar :)

A Slice of Small Business Life

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong wrote this on 6 comments

There was a time in America, if you can believe it, when you would order a pizza and it would arrive somewhat cold and soggy. A horrifying prospect! Ingrid Kosar was disenchanted with cold delivery pizza too, and she wanted to do something about it. In 1984, she filed a patent for a “thermally insulated food bag,” which is familiar to pizza eaters the world over.

Photo by Michael Berger

Kosar has a great entrepreneurial origin story. The next three decades of her career don’t make as tidy a narrative. The bags got commoditized; Kosar lost business to lower-priced competitors and her patents eventually expired. But Thermal Bags By Ingrid is still making pizza bags out of its small office in the Chicago suburbs. Ingrid Kosar embodies what it means to survive in business over the long term. She’s come close to losing it all, yet has held on long enough to see sales recover. In fact, after her story ran in The Distance, Kosar told me she hired two new employees for her sewing department—a nice epilogue to a true underdog story.

Read more about Kosar, her business and the history of U.S. pizza delivery at The Distance.

Shipping Basecamp for iOS 2.0

Nick wrote this on 15 comments

Almost 2 years ago I wrote about our approach to building our first in-house native application. This week, we shipped version 2.0 of Basecamp for iPhone, which now shares a codebase with Basecamp for iPad. I’m proud to say this is our best iOS release yet. Give it a shot!

What’s changed? Everything. For starters, we’ve:

  • Rewritten the app in Objective-C
  • Banked on our hybrid architecture
  • Shared a universal codebase between iPhone and iPad
  • Reinforced our testing infrastructure

I’m happy to share the details on how we built and shipped the app. Let’s dig in.


An ecosystem, fragmented

Nick wrote this on 8 comments

Fragmentation isn’t just Android’s problem anymore.

Here’s the last 2 years worth of iOS and Android usage by operating system version for Basecamp, combining our native app usage and our mobile web views:

Fragmentation is the past for Android, but now it’s the present for both of the major mobile operating systems. My big question: will we see either platform be able to converge in the future, or is this the new normal?

These were made with Tableau by Noah, which is really fantastic. Noah’s fantastic too.

REWORK Stickers

Jamie wrote this on 1 comment

In 2010, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson wrote a business book called REWORK. Since then REWORK has become a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and bestseller. It goes against what every other business book is about. On top of that, it’s a quick read and it has pictures!
Those pictures were illustrated beautifully by Mike Rohde. We keep hearing from fans: “I love the art! Can I buy it?” So we partnered with the folks at StickerMule to offer some of the art as stickers.

We’re offering this initial batch of REWORK art to start. In the coming weeks I’ll be adding more. Follow us on Twitter for updates.

We want everyone who wants a REWORK sticker (or 20 of them) to get one, so we tried to set the price as low as possible. Each sticker is $3.14 or $2.79 depending on which ones you choose. The price completely covers StickerMule’s production and shipping costs. We’re not making anything off of these stickers.

We’re glad to finally get Mike Rohde’s REWORK art into your hands. Stick all the things!

Thanks again to Mike Rohde and Anthony at StickerMule.

Accepting the worst

David wrote this on 5 comments

There’s an exhilarating freedom and motivation in having nothing to lose. History is full of amazing tales of underdog ingenuity. Likewise, stereotypes abound of the mighty falling flat, trying desperately to protect what they’ve got.

But even more insidious than actively trying to protect what you have, is frequent fretting about how to do so in your mind. It’s so easy to fall into an endless churn of worries about how your precious gains could vanish tomorrow.

This is known as loss aversion. It’s the default routing of our evolutionary brains, and it can lead to unnecessary stress, lost opportunities, and poor decision-making. But it doesn’t have to be your destiny – it is indeed possible to reroute.

The stoic practice of negative visualization is one way to do this. If you imagine, clearly and frequently, the worst case scenario, you can work on coming to terms with its consequences. Usually they’re far less dire than your worries would lead you to believe.

I’ve employed this technique from the get-go with everything I hold dear in my life. As an example, here’s how I’ve applied this to the thought that a terrible end could prematurely doom Basecamp.

It’s easy to contemplate all sorts of spectacular ways this could happen: A massive hack that destroys all data, all backups. Some sort of epic fraud that indicts the entire company. I let my mind seek out all sorts of terrible corners.

Then I consider what’s left: I got to work with amazing people for over a decade. I grew as a programmer, as a manager, and as a business person immensely. I enjoyed most days, most of the time. I helped millions of people be more productive doing all sorts of wonderful things.

I’m so much better off for having been through this, regardless of how a possible end might occur for the company. This makes whether circumstances allow us to continue for another decade (or five!) a lesser deal than the fact that we did for one.

This brings a calmness, a tranquility as the stoics would say, that’s incredibly liberating. A head free of fear or dread. I believe this not only is a saner, healthier way to live (stress wrecks havoc on the body and soul), but also better for the company.

We’re not running Intel, and I don’t want to have Grove’s “only the paranoid survive” as my modus operandi. I want to retain the underdog sense of having nothing to lose, even when conventional thought might say I (and the company) have everything to lose.

That’s the tranquil freedom of the stoic way.

Sharing a first draft

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 15 comments

Been working on some copy for the Basecamp site. I don’t know where it’s going to go yet – maybe on a new page, maybe it’ll replace something else, maybe we’ll even test it as the new home page.

But I wasn’t thinking of where it was going to go when I wrote it. I was just thinking about what I wanted to communicate, what I wanted to say. It’s sort of an ode to project managers. So I wrote it.

It’s not done, but I thought I’d share it so far. Here it is:

You’re responsible for getting a project done.

You need to pull together a variety of people with different skills, communication styles, schedules, and attention spans to work on this project with you.

Some of these people work inside your company, while others, like clients, vendors, or contractors, might be outside your walls. All people are created equal, but when it comes to working on a project together, they couldn’t be more different.

Naturally, the more people there are, the more chaos there is. So your job is to be “the organized one” and make sure everything’s under control and things go as planned. You need a clear view.

This is a tall order and a tough job and you rarely get the credit you deserve for doing it well.

You crave a system that helps you “effortlessly be on top of everything.”

You need a tool to help you divvy up, assign, and review work, set deadlines, make announcements, gather feedback, make decisions, follow up with people, share important on-the-record updates with stakeholders, and keep project-related reference materials easily accessible for anyone who needs it.

It’s absolutely gotta make things easier for you, but it can’t be at the expense of making it hard on others.

You know you can’t use a tool that imposes on the people you’re working with. It can’t be complicated, it can’t force people to drastically change the way they work, and it can’t require them to pay close attention all day long so they don’t miss something important.

You’re already fighting an uphill battle against deadlines, expectations, and human nature – you don’t want to have to fight against software too.

You’ve worked with people long enough to know some people rally around a new system, others will push hard against it. There will be folks who are all-in, and folks who just want to get stuff sent to them via email. So whatever system you adopt, it needs to work well regardless of how much other people choose to engage with it.

This tool needs to be your trusted assistant, not your damned adversary.

In the end, what matters is the work, the process, and the end product. You need to deliver something great, and people need to get along throughout. That’s what you take pride in, and, conveniently, that’s what they pay you for. You’re the leader. You must use a tool that’ll amplify your skills and support you every step of the way.

You’re in luck. We’ve made something especially for you.

Meet Basecamp, your new best friend at work. Welcome aboard.